Although the town is small and relatively random, there is one thing that drew me in about Bac Ha and once I’d learned of it, I couldn’t turn back: The Bac Ha Market. People come from all over Vietnam, both locals and tourists (mostly locals) to visit Bac Ha Market which happens only on Sundays. Gets set up the night before and broken down on Sunday evening. You know I luvvv a market, so this was a must. I told Alex I was getting up at 7am to get there when it starts. When I got to the market they were selling harem-ish style pants with embroidery from local tribeswomen. I tried on a bunch of pairs to find the right one. They were all pretty loose (so F you, tiny Hanoi clothes!) but this one pair that I really loved was kinda small. I try them on, and the lady at the stall is like (via body language, she doesn’t speak English), “they will get bigger! Just squat and they will get looser.” And I’m like (again, in body language), “no, they’re really small, I’m gonna rip them if I do that” and she’s like “No, no, please – squat! They will fit!” and I’m like “okayyy….” at which point I squat and the pants split right down the crotch. I am mortified. She is laughing. The other women from the other stalls are looking over and laughing. Later when I got over the fact that I split the pants, I bought a pair.
Local embroidery for sale at Bac Ha market.
One local woman dressed me up in this local garb from from her stall. I felt it would be borderline cultural appropriation to buy this whole get-up but I'm not gonna lie: I thought it looked kinda good.
Only the best tobacco for sale at Bac Ha market. Don't forget to try before you buy. ;)
As seen in the photo above, tobacco is pretty huge in Vietnam. There are many varieties, and there is a pipe (like the ones pictured above) at just about every home, accommodation, restaurant and shop. Roll up pretty much anywhere and there will be a pipe sitting outside in a bucket for your tobacco-smoking pleasure.
There isn’t much else in Bac Ha beside the market, so Alex and I decided to borrow the guest house owner’s motorbike and go ride around. We get about 10km up the main road and see a white girl on a bike pulled over. We stop to make sure she is okay. She says she’s fine, she’s trying to get to a little town on the border of China called Si Ma Cai. I was relatively familiar with the geography of Vietnam but I hadn’t realized we were THAT close to China. When I hear this, I’m like Alex, we have nowhere else to be, we’re going to China. So we ride for another 15km or so and reach the town. There is nothing there. Not even a Banh My for us to eat. (Yes it is mostly spelled with a Y in Vietnam). I look on Google maps and see that we’re still not exactly on the border line. I'm wondering, can we get to the actual border? So I drop a pin on the border and it tells me we’re 12km away. I’m like Alex, I wanna see that fucking blue Google Maps dot on the BORDER OF CHINA, let’s go. He’s a huge adrenaline junkie so he’s down. So we’re following Google Maps which tells us to turn onto this unknown road. We follow it and basically ride the winding road through a steep mountainside. When we first get on the road, we’re at the top of the mountain. The road snakes down the mountain to what is presumably the bottom, where there should be a river, but we cannot see it yet. We follow it for as long as we can, until it starts getting really steep and narrow and muddy and I go “Alex I’m scared” and he’s like okay fine let’s just climb this really steep mountain-peak off-shoot thing instead. So we drive down this muddy ass side road to get to the peak Alex is referring to (it’s like an offshoot of the mountain itself. Not sure what the proper term is for something like that). We can barely get the bike through the mud. Flip flops are falling off and getting stuck in the swamp that is the road, but we finally park. Alex climbs first while I freak out that it’s too dangerous. Then once he’s made it to the top I have FOMO and decide I’m joining. The climb was not particularly long, maybe only 10 minutes, just kinda dangerous. Like this: 5 feet of muddy uphill to get to the tiny path within a corn field. Then wade through 6-foot-tall corn stalks for about 50 feet, flat terrain. Then, about 10 feet of muddy uphill. Then, about 10 feet of tall-grassy-thorny-kinda-uphill. Chill at the top. Epic views. We can see the river that divides Vietnam and China. WE MADE IT. Come back down. As I'm coming down the muddy part, about to wade through the corn, some ENORMOUS flying bug approaches me at eye level. It is the size of a large wasp and it is bright red like an almost-ripe cherry. And I swear to god this thing had fangs and claws and six eyes and it was hovering in front of my face like in Honey I Shrunk The Kids when the bees are huge and hairy and just fucking dominating everything. It's bzzzzing at me and I start screaming and flailing and running through the corn like I have no idea where I’m even putting my feet, I could take a wrong step and slide at any time but it’s fight or flight and I’m just bolting the hell out of there. Alex was already back and the bike and I tell him I just had a face-off with this red fanged flying monster bug and he's like "that sounds awesome!" Like, no.
THEN we have to ride the bike back through the mud, this time uphill. It's scary only because when bikes go through mud they lose traction and slip unpredictably which is not ideal on a narrow mountain road. So the bike is sliding everywhere, we can't ride it. Alex had get off and walk the bike uphill, except it was so steep he had to turn the bike on and kinda "drive" it uphill while walking next to it for control. 100 meters of this. It was heroic. And then we rode out of there. Every local we passed on the way back up the unknown road was looking at us like ummmm whatcha doin here?
Where we were when we discovered it was only another 12km to the China border // river that separates China and Vietnam.
What the road looked like on Google Maps.
What the road looked like IRL. (This photo taken from the top of the little peak we climbed.)
A view from the ride to the border.
When we got back on the main road, it got dark quickly. We had an hour long journey ahead of us so we decided to stop for food somewhere along the way. We pull over at a roadside joint. The peeps hanging there speak zero English. We try to communicate that I don’t eat meat and Alex does eat ALL of the meat. They go grab a chicken from the back, hold it down and cut its neck right in front of us. It starts bleeding out from the neck. I’m looking at Alex like dude that’s your dinner. He's like "I literally just felt the energy from the chicken disappear." Turns out that chicken was for these other locals who just showed up in a group of five or six and had ordered the full chicken special. Alex got the shiesty chicken left over from before. Other than the shiesty chicken the food was vaaary good.
Also in Bac Ha: One night Alex and I refuse to eat western food but that is all we can find. We want proper Vietnamese food but every restaurant seemed to be catered to tourists, which was weird because it isn't even a touristy town. We will not settle so we walk up this road and eventually see a place with a few locals inside having dinner together. They wave us in to come sit with them. Older men and one woman. They’re toward the end of their meal. They want us to try all their food. Alex eats DOG. Yes you read that correctly. Not just one bite of dog. Three different parts of dog, prepared three different ways. He said it was just okay. Then the locals want us to drink rice wine with them. They keep filling up our shot glasses every time we look away. Then they insist we smoke tobacco out of the two pipes behind us. (Sorry Mom and Dad... it was just one rip!) After about 5 more shots, the locals are like (via body language, they don’t speak English) “hey we gotta bounce, the rest of the food is for you guys and we’ve already paid the bill. And you can have the bottle of rice wine.” We kill the food. No, dude, of course I didn’t eat dog. I'm pescatarian. Muahahaha. We bring the wine back to our guest house and Alex makes everyone drink as if we are in college – including the family who runs our guest house. They are totally down for this, getting a huge kick out of it. They were still finishing dinner and we all just kinda started drunkenly picking at their food while taking rice wine shots together. I don’t remember going to bed.
The full table of food that the locals fed us / left us.
Chukaaaa shots with our people back at our guest house in Bac Ha. On the table you will notice the delicacy that is chicken feet.
Me, before going to bed on this crazy chuka night, declaring that I love the decor in this guest house (those are Vietnamese skirts fanned out on the wall) and I must have a photo shoot with it.
There is one thing in particular that made it easy for Alex and I to travel together: we both have local motives. We just love the locals more than anything and we believe they hold the key to the best experiences you can have while traveling. For this reason, we go out of our way often to find the locals and spend time with them. We meet them at roadside shops and chat them up. We meet them in restaurants. Wherever. This takes us far outside our comfort zones (ahem, remember the chicken slaughter from earlier). Sometimes when Alex would go for a ride alone I would actually get localFOMO cause I would know he was chatting up some Vietnamese person and I didn't want him to one-up me with any fun local experiences!!!
We carried on these local motives as we moved from Bac Ha to our next stop: Cao Bang. Except before we could go to Cao Bang, for a number of logistical reasons, we had to first stop back in Hanoi. And in order to stop back in Hanoi, we had to first stop on the way in Lao Cai. So we go to Lao Cai by bus. Side note, we played every game you can imagine on these bus rides. The games would go like this: I would teach Alex a game, and then he would beat me at it. Then, I would choose the game I enjoyed losing at the most and we would play that game. Taught him the Four Letter Word Game and he was pretty good at it, especially with English as a second language. Taught him Squares, where you have to close the most boxes (HI HANNAH). And Scattergories. And games like "let's go back and forth naming every US state until we can't anymore" (we got 48) and "let's go back and forth naming every retail brand we can think of" which was SO DUMB and was Alex's idea. (Not kidding, I know you all think it was my idea. It wasn't.)
Okay so we take the bus to Lao Cai. We arrive in the early afternoon. Plan was to leave Lao Cai in the morning to go to Hanoi so we can catch the bus from there to Cao Bang. We realize Alex left the ring from Mama Sa at the hotel in Sapa Town. We call the hotel and at first they say they can't find it but we give them vaaary specific instructions (it is in the herbal bath room, on top of the towel rack) and they find it. It's 65km from Lao Cai to Sapa so we're like fuck it, let's get a bike and go get this ring. Keep in mind this ring is worth MAYBE one penny, but it had emotional value. We rent a motorbike and start driving around 4pm. It starts raining on the way so we stop at a roadside shop where they cut up some plastic bags for us so we can stay dry. Like this:
We get to the hotel, get the ring, eat some banh my, and hit the road for the 65km drive back to Lao Cai. At this point guys I am so comfortable on the back of the bike that I'm fully, like, looking up hostels on Agoda and Hostelworld, seeing what flights to Portugal are the cheapest, taking photos, taking videos... I am straight chillin back there!
So we start driving and about 15km into the ride, we run out of gas. Like we're coming down a hill and the bike just turns off. We totally forgot to think about gas. So we pull over and wave down a local driving by. He says there is gas up the road – we had just passed it. He tells us (via body language) to jump on his bike. His daughter is also on the bike. We leave our bike on the side of the road and the four of us ride up to the gas station, get petrol in a plastic bottle, and then ride back down to our bike and rock on. (We tried to give him $VND 10,000 which is equivalent to throwing someone a fiver in this situation but he refused.)
The next morning in Lao Cai, I take the lead on making arrangements for the bus to Hanoi. As I'm trying to book the bus through our hotel, we're having trouble communicating. A woman kinda overhears this and comes over. She is around my age. She lives just across the street and teaches English at a school in Lao Cai. She communicates very well. After helping confirm the bus for later that day, she says to me, "I would like to take you to the local market, you can pick some food, and I will make lunch for you at my home." So I'm like, um, YEAH. So I grab Alex and we go to the market and pick out some FISH, which we haven't eaten in far too long. Then we go back to Huong's house and hang out while she prepares a FEAST.